When Pastors Water Down the Truth of God’s Word
“We keep our preaching basic because we have so many new believers. If we give them too much doctrine, they won't be able to understand it.” I can't remember how many times I've heard church planters and pastors say such things. Sadly, as their ministries begin to grow numerically, mature believers in the congregation are left to languish in spiritual malnourishment and discouragement.
Ministers need to learn how to break down, rather than water down, the truth of God’s word.
On the other hand, there are those churches (though significantly fewer in number) in which ministers seem to wear their academic interests on their sleeve in the pulpit. They burden the congregation with highly nuanced theological subjects or phraseology in the name of faithfulness. Whether it is compromising ministers diluting God's word to the spiritual malnourishment of the congregation or ivory tower pastors caring little about bringing along new believers, one of the great needs of our day is for preachers to learn how to break down, rather than water down, the truth of God's word.
We find this important principle at work in the ministry of the sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin. On the whole, Calvin tended to reserve his more academic prowess for his work The Institutes of the Christian Religion and his commentaries rather than for his sermons. In his essay, “Calvin’s Sermons on Ephesians: Expounding and Applying Scripture, " Randall C. Zachman helpfully observes,
[Calvin's] sermons differed from the commentaries both in terms of their audience and their objective. The commentaries have, as their audience, the future pastors...with the goal of revealing the mind of the author with lucid brevity. The sermons have, as their audience, ordinary Christians within a specific congregation with the goal of expounding the intention or meaning of the author, and of applying that meaning to their use, so that they might retain that meaning in their minds and hearts, and put it into practice in their lives.
Calvin sought to adjust himself in different ways to his readers and hearers, distinguishing between what he wrote for the academy and what he proclaimed from the pulpit. A brief comparison of his commentary on Genesis and his sermons on Genesis serve to demonstrate this difference of approach. To be sure, it is a task of no small difficulty.
Ministers must be careful to neither deny the sovereign working of the Spirit nor intellectually insult the congregation.
In our day, when ministers water down God's word they almost always do so from behind a missiological smokescreen. Insisting that a robustly theological ministry is a detriment to reaching the unchurched, they introduce a number of serious problems.
First, ministers—perhaps inadvertently—give the impression that the ability to impart spiritual understanding lies within the power of the messenger rather than in the working of the Spirit and word of God. In essence, they suggest that the outcome of their teaching is commensurate with the supposed intellectual ability of the hearers. This not only denies the sovereign working of the Spirit of God through the word of God—it levels an intellectual insult at the people to whom they minister.
Ministers shouldn’t assume that everyone grows at the same spiritual pace.
Second, such reasoning carries with it the faulty presupposition that everyone grows at the same slow spiritual pace. Such ministers forget that most of the weighty apostolic letters were written to new Gentile converts who lacked much, if any, familiarity with the Old Testament. Yet, the apostle Paul wrote some of the deepest and most profound truths to new converts in Rome, Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus, etc. These letters included appeals to oftentimes less familiar verses of the Old Testament, as well as to some of the most difficult and nuanced theological argumentation in all of the Scripture (2 Pet. 3:15-16).
Those ministers who fail to break down God's word for his people usually do so from behind an ecclesiastical smokescreen. They treat each member of the congregation as if he or she should be at the same spiritual place in understanding by virtue of the fact that they are members of the church. This is often driven by unrealistic and undistinguished spiritual and intellectual expectations of every believer. They too have faulty presuppositions that everyone will grow at the same spiritual pace—failing to factor in the spiritual infancy of new believers.
Those who water down the truth will often appeal to 1 Corinthians 3:2 where the apostle Paul writes,
I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able.
Ministers who fail to break down the truth will almost always point to Hebrews 5:12-14 where the writer rebukes the congregants for their spiritual immaturity when he says,
For though, by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
So, how can we reconcile these two truths of Scripture that seem to lay in stark contrast with one another?
Ministers must be faithful to avoid both theological dilution and ecclesiastical elitism.
Calvin's comments on 1 Corinthians 3:2 are exceedingly helpful. First, Calvin explains that the minister must learn to "accommodate himself to the capacity of those he has undertaken to instruct." He writes:
Christ is at once milk to babes, and strong meat to those that are of full age, (Hebrews 5:13, 14,) the same truth of the gospel is administered to both, but so as to suit their capacity. Hence it is the part of a wise teacher to accommodate himself to the capacity of those whom he has undertaken to instruct, so that in dealing with the weak and ignorant, he begins with first principles, and does not go higher than they are able to follow (Mark 4:33).
He then goes on to warn ministers against watering down the truth in preaching:
[We must] refute the specious pretext of some, who...present Christ at such a distance, and covered over, besides, with so many disguises, that they constantly keep their followers in destructive ignorance...their presenting Christ not simply in half, but torn to fragments....How unlike they are to Paul is sufficiently manifest; for milk is nourishment and not poison, and nourishment that is suitable and useful for bringing up children until they are farther advanced.
Pastors must be faithful to their call to break down God’s word so that his people “may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ."
How important it is for ministers of the gospel to, at one and the same time, avoid that theological dilution by which we fail to bring up children “until they are farther advanced” while rejecting that ecclesiastical elitism that refuses to “accommodate to the capacity” of those we are instructing. Rather, it must be the goal and aim of our ministries to be faithful to the call to break down God's word…
…until we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ." (Eph. 4:13-15)
Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures by Dennis E. Johnson
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